Finding the Important Difference Between Comparative and Evaluative Peer Referencing

Aug 27, 2019

People of all ages, genders, and races can suffer from low-self esteem. In the age of social media, comparing oneself to their peers is easier than ever. Murray State professor of psychology, Michael Bordieri, Ph.D., visits Sounds Good to discuss the difference between healthy and harmful comparison.

"In some ways, peer referencing or social comparison can be helpful. We learn how to behave and we learn how to act based on what others are doing around us. That can often be helpful in a new space, or in the case of a role model -- someone you look up to -- it can be helpful to see what [sort of] traits or behaviors they're engaging in and how you can bring more of that into your life," Bordieri explains. "Social comparison offers us an opportunity to learn, to have mentors, to grow. But yeah, there is a dark side to it as well. It really can leave us feeling inferior, lower self-esteem, and really leave us struggling when we're constantly looking for evidence that other people are better than we are, or living better, whatever it might be -- we're going to see evidence of this out in the world on a daily basis." 

In today's online world, these opportunities to compare oneself to surrounding peers are more prevalent than ever. Carefully curated profiles and photo editors can give the impression of a perfect life and little to no bodily flaws. "We only see some parts of others," Bordieri says. "We tend to see the parts of others that [are] the best side of them. When we're looking at comparisons, we typically do what we call in the research an upward social comparison. We're identifying people who are higher or better at a trait or aspect than we are and looking for evidence of that gap. One really clear space that you can see this now in is social media. In the age of social media, we have lots of posts of people living their best life out in the world and the accomplishments are there. And so it's really easy to kind of fall into that perspective of looking at the accomplishments and highlights of other people's lives, versus the day-to-day existence that you have, and thinking there's a disconnect. There's some research suggesting that people who spend more time on Facebook have lower self-esteem and really can have psychological difficulties related to making these comparisons." While social media plays a large role in social comparison, the phenomenon existed before the era of Facebook and Instagram. 

"We still have other areas, too. You can look around at your neighbors, what car are they driving? Who got the new addition to the house? So, we can see it out in the world. [But] social media makes it more accessible and makes it to the point where it really can be pervasive in our day-to-day life," Bordieri explains. "The good news is, is that there's maybe a way out of this. It doesn't involve letting go of comparison. In fact, kind of looking at us in relation to others can be really powerful. But sometimes what's missing is letting go of evaluation. Evaluative comparisons are all about 'where I stand, am I better or worse, do I have more or less.' They're always in these sort of frames...where do I measure up? What research has found is that, you know, looking more at comparison as a way of looking for empathy or taking the perspective of someone else can really offer us a more healthier way to engage with others around us and in our world. Instead of saying 'how do I measure up, what am I better at than them or worse at, how is their life better or worse than mind' -- simply in thinking and looking for 'how can I understand where they're coming from, what sort of perspective can I take on this situation' can be really powerful." 

"I think one of the challenges is, what criteria do we use to compare? Our minds are able to create an unlimited number of categories and ranking. That's what our minds do and are really good at. And, you know, that's useful. It's helpful in our day-to-day lives at work. But maybe it's the case that sometimes we need to let go of that tool, let go of that sort of comparison machine, when it isn't helping us," Bordieri says. Although rewiring the brain to not immediately compare and evaluate is not an easy or quick process, it's a worthwhile one -- especially when it comes to maintaining healthy social relationships.

"It's always the case that you can find evidence that other people are doing better than you in some areas, or the opposite. You know, downward comparisons -- you can say 'look at how many people are doing worse than me, I'm great,' and sometimes, you can fall into that trap as well," Bordieri explains. "If we let go of comparison what do we get? We can get more in touch with what matters to us. Instead of comparing ourselves to others, we can compare ourselves and what we're doing to our idea of values in our own life. Who do we want to be? Not 'am I as good as someone else,' but 'am I living my life the way I want to today?"

"I think switching that sort of mindset can really free us from our mind comparison machine that runs nonstop. And then, we can spend more time focused on building empathy and connection. Not 'am I better than you,' but 'can I understand where you're coming from? Or can I see how your experiences and your history kind of led to where you're at today and where you are in this conversation?' That can lead us to have much richer and more healthy conversations with one another," Bordieri concludes.